I am one of those many, many minds who believe that all the greatest and largest mysteries of the universe can be solved if we simply had a bit more time to sit — or stand, or lie down, as the case may be — and have a very deep think. If a man — or woman, as the case may be — rowed a boat out into the middle of an abandoned lake or ocean or very large puddle, and sat in thoughtfulness for a hundred years, he might figure out at least one of the greatest questions of our time. Questions such as; what happens when we die? What happens before we live? Is there a higher power somewhere above us, controlling our lives like puppets on strings? Is there a higher power out there somewhere, planting the seeds of our lives and watching them grow in unexpected, unprecedented ways? Is there a higher power out there who gave up on us long ago, and is currently curled up in a ball on the floor, unable to stop sobbing and wondering where it all went wrong in the first place? What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of death? What is the meaning of the square root of a negative number? What is stopping us from crawling into a ball on the floor, succumbing to the uncontrollable sobbing and wondering where it all went wrong in the first place?
But even if one of these questions was answered by a man or a woman or neither of the above, sitting in a boat in the middle of an isolated body of water, chances are there is another person in exactly the same predicament, sitting for a hundred years and wondering even if we could answer one of these questions, what difference would it make anyway?
More likely if one came up with a solution to one of these questions, the Great Thinker with the Answer would row, row, row their little boat back to shore (assuming they are healthy enough to do so after a hundred years and are not, in fact, dead), and vehemently return to civilisation only to find that civilisation is no more. Because it is part of this same belief that predicts that the very precise second we find out The Answer to the Universe, the universe will rather abruptly meet its untimely end.
(Either that, or the precise moment the Great Thinker of questionable gender thinks up the Answer, he, she, or it will rather abruptly meet his, her, or its very timely end, and never get to share their great discovery.)
Unlike a lot of beliefs that people believe, I happen to believe that this belief is quite believable.
But one thing I can scarcely believe is the fact that I've been lying here for a very, very, very long time with nothing to do but to think. I've been thinking and thinking and thinking and thinking, and I have come up with three beliefs that are not beliefs at all but observations I believe to be unbelievable, but true.
The first of these beliefs is that although I could well be a Great Thinker, I most definitely am not lying in a small rowing boat in some large body of water, or in a hermit's cave beside a goat sanctuary, or beneath a desk in an abandoned staple factory (depending on what type of Great Thinker I may be), unless of course these places are freshly furnished with a sturdy metal bed, cotton sheets and fluffed pillows, because that is where I appear to be dwelling.
The next of these beliefs is that although I have not yet opened my eyes to observe my surroundings, I can conclude with great certainty that it is very, very, very bright here.
The final belief I have from all my thinking is that something is dreadfully wrong. Here a set of sub-beliefs is required. One: something happened. Not that I can remember. Two: I died. Three: I was dead for a while. Things were quite lovely. Four: I can only imagine that I fell asleep on the clouds and am now experiencing what can only be described as a nightmare. Five: I am still waiting to wake up. I wasn't nearly finished being dead yet.
Understandably, this brings along a few more questions. Primarily, what sort of dreams can death allow?
I use observational reasoning to come to a conclusion. That conclusion being: very strange ones indeed.
Secondarily, how do the dreams of the dead compare with the dreams of the living? I use my great ability of philosophical musing to overcome this seemingly mysterious question. The answer I reach is this: in living dreams you cannot get hurt. You pinch yourself to wake up. Dreams of the living are nothing to afraid of, unless of course you are a sufferer of night terrors or sleepwalking, as everyone knows the numerous dangers associated with these horrible afflictions. But death, from my experience and from previous assumptions, cannot harm you either. When you are dead you cannot feel pain. This has caused a certain song to be stuck in my head for as long as I have been dwelling on these thoughts. The song was most likely written by a Great Thinker, and goes like this:
Row, row, row your boatGently down the stream.Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,Life is but a dream!
Other than a rather inordinate amount of repetition and rather haunting conclusion, this song holds the exact answer I have been looking for. While I am alive I can be hurt, but if I dream in my life I cannot. But if I am dead and I cannot be hurt, then it is only logical that if I dream while I am dead then I can be harmed. If life is in fact 'but a dream' … then the sleep of death holds dreams that can be harmfully, harmfully, harmfully, harmfully apt to make you scream!
If life is but a dream, is a dream but life?
When I think of this I begin to feel the blood I apparently have in my veins rushing to my head, so I shall move on to:
Finally, how in the world do I wake myself up?
This last question is quite bit trickier than the others.
I try pinching myself. This has no effect but proving that these dreams can and will hurt me, and I must try to wake up to my safe, hurt-free death as swiftly as possible.
I try rolling over, but this only results in twisting some tubes around and getting tangled up and pinched and pulled painfully, also verifying the earlier hypothesis. I lie there for a while in pain, half-rolled to one side and unable to muster the strength to fix things. For a moment I feel like I must be waking up because my mind gets foggy, but then I find myself back in my original position in the bed, still stuck and making no progress.
Finally, I decide that I must open my eyes. I can tell there's a very bright light or six around me, and that seems to be the key to awaking from this terrible nightmare. After all, when I died there was light. Right? I can't really remember, but I think there was. Light seems like a good sign anyway. It means morning, and morning means waking up! Morning also means breakfast, but if all goes well I shall never eat again, for I shall be dead, and won't have need for that kind of thing.
I do a lot of preparation before the opening of the eyes. I scrunch them up, and relax them. I roll them around inside their sockets, slowly training them for the big show. I carefully study the patterns I can see with them still closed, indistinguishable red and dark blotches, fragments of thoughts I cannot identify. Finally, I relax my eyelids, and carefully, carefully, carefully flutter my lashes until it begins to hurt and I have to close them again.
It takes time, but eventually I have sight. I can look around.
Lying on my back, I appear to be in a dense fog. I can only see whiteness everywhere, engulfing me and my entire surroundings. I have sight but I see nothing. I open and close my eyes rapidly, squinting so hard it hurts and widening my eyes so far I fear I'll get stuck like that if the wind changes. But there's no wind here to speak of, and with my eyes open it's like my ears become open too, and all sorts of sounds hit them. Hushed shouts all around, rolling wheels and crashing carts and clanging metals and pens scratching loudly and sheets ruffling and a constant, continuous, ear-splitting bleep! and the obnoxiously heavy wheezing somewhere to my left, and somewhere to my right, a sort of dry, muffled sob. Opening my ears seems to only bring the noises closer.
So many voices. I roll over again, becoming entangled in tubes and wires like a bug caught in a spider's web or a fish caught in a net, and I pull and pull and pull so that the tubes tug and it hurts, even though I know the pain won't be able to wake me. The light couldn't wake me, nor the sounds, and no matter how long I lie in this bed and think, it would be impossible to think up an answer to this last question. I cannot wake up.
I can only drift back into the fog, and then come around some time later only to have it happen all over again.
However, the next time I find myself in some state of consciousness, something is different. For one thing, I am no longer lying down, but sitting up, my head and back propped up with a pillow. For another thing, one of my hands lies outside the covers. And in my hand, is something else.
Keeping my eyes closed, I feel the something in my hand. It's large, bigger than my own hand, and is soft and warm. I twitch away from it when it moves, then knit my brow and take it up in my hand again. As fingers lace through mine I realise that it is another hand, but who it belongs to I can't even imagine. The thumb of this alien hand begins to trace circles in my palm, and I wrinkle my brow again.
Since I can't dream of who this hand might belong to, the only thing I can think of to do is to open my eyes and find out.
And so I do.
It takes a moment to adjust to the bright lights, and I find myself blinking at a blurry figure sitting by the side of my bed. I look at the hands, entwined on top of the blanket as things begin to focus. The other hand is, thankfully, attached to an arm, which is attached to the shoulder and torso of a boy. Well, he's almost a man, I suppose. He's dressed entirely in articles of clothing, with nothing on his feet but a pair of socks and two shoes. He has hair growing out of the top of his head, and his face contains a mouth, a nose and two eyes. Eyes which are currently goggling at me the way one person might look at someone else, if that someone else happens to be a ghost.
The mouth on the face of the boy then opens, and he cries,
Any? Any what? Maybe he wants to know if I have any idea what's going on. Or maybe he's asking if I have any oxygen he could borrow. Or maybe he'd enquiring into whether there's any chance I could please let go of his hand.
Then it hits me like a pillowcase, if that pillowcase happened to be filled with a ton of bricks. The song! Annie Cresta went to sea! With that, everything else seems to follow, rushing over me like a tidal wave.
Finnick, Finnick, went to sea —
Down in the valley where the green grass grows —
My name being called into a microphone. ANNIE CRESTA, blaring around the city circle. A crowd cheering. The little mermaid. An anthem playing in the distance. A cannon booming, over and over and over. Leaves rustle, and Lance looks up from fishing with his spear in the small pool. "Go on ahead," he says, frowning only slightly. "I'll catch up." Running through a jungle. Rolling in the sand. Lying in a cave.
Finnick Odair in his underwear.
"Finnick!" I screech. I mean, I would have screeched if my voice hadn't broken and begun a coughing fit that only worsened the scratchiness in my throat and my lungs felt like gravel. I blindly take the glass that's forced into my hands and drink deeply from it, gasping when I finally emerge.
Finnick is on the edge of his seat. He takes the glass and returns it to a cabinet beside the cot in which I've been lying all this time. I can see properly for the first time, and realise that it is Finnick, of course it's him. How could I have possibly forgotten? His tall stature, athletic body, perfect jawline, reddish-brown hair and those sea green eyes. His hand, strong and sturdy, which is back gripping my own. His smile, that goofy sideways grin that makes me unable to stop smiling myself, hardly noticing how the monitor on the other side of my bed begins to bleep more frantically as my heart-rate increases.
"Hey," he says, giving my hand a squeeze.
For a moment we stare at each other, and I'm beginning to feel a little unsettled at the fact that I cannot seem to remember how I know Finnick at all. Or where I am. Or what happened to me.
He's smiling sheepishly now, trying to figure out what to say. So I say, "How's it — I mean, um, how's it going?"
He laughs shortly. "It's …" He laughs again and shakes his head. "How are you feeling?" he asks, lowering his voice.
I lift my free hand and scratch my head. "Well, I don't know exactly, but it's, um, something to do with the — the skin and nerve endings and things …" I breathed heavily, my brain finding it difficult to put my words on my tongue.
His eyebrows raise slightly, and he pauses for a while before saying, "And … what are you feeling?"
"Oh," I say quickly, and then I need to think. What am I feeling? "That's a much harder question …" I reply finally, leaning forwards to whisper it with a small smile. He smiles back, and says nothing. I continue to think about the question, and in the end all I can do is smile wider and say, "This dream is a lot, um, a lot nicer than the others."
Finnick laughs again. "You're not dreaming, Annie," he tells me.
"Well, you see, that's exactly what someone in a dream would say," I whisper back.
He chuckles and shakes his head. "I can't argue with that." He looks around. "Doctors should be along any minute if you're awake. They'll kill me for not calling them right away …"
I look around the room for the first time. It's fairly small, with a door over there and a large window leading onto a narrow corridor. Everything is white. I look down and see the tube that runs from underneath my nose to the tank at the side of my bed, which wheezes every few seconds, consistently, never ceasing. There are more wires sticking out of my arm. My eyes follow the green line tracking my heartbeat on the monitor that bleeps. "Doctors?" I ask quietly, watching the line spike up and down and up and down. "Why? What — Are you sick, Finnick?"
I don't look over at him, but I can feel his silence and his stare. "Annie … Do you know where you are?"
I press my lips together and meet his eyes carefully. He swallows and grips my hand in both of his, leaning closer to the bed.
"Do you remember what happened?"
I stare at the end of the bed and give a small shrug. "Well, I dunno exactly. There was that, um, that … school trip to the Capitol, right?" Finnick is staring at me now, his eyes very wide. I pout my lips in concentration, trying to remember what happened after we got into that hovercraft that brought us away. "And then Lance was there in the tide pools — and Juliet and Laertes, too — and, um, you took me for a picnic in that cave. And all those flowers, and the crabs and the bats … It was …" I think deeply for a moment, searching for the word. I bite my lip. "Sweet! It was real romantic, Finnick."
I give a short laugh, but something doesn't feel quite right. Maybe it's the way Finnick is glaring at me now. He's completely frozen, eventually he chokes out, "Annie … You were in a cave but I wasn't there with you."
I smile. He's so silly sometimes. "Yeah, you were."
He just shakes his head. And I take a deep breath that shudders fearfully through my whole body. I retract my hand quickly from his grasp.
"Yes, you were. You had the — the bread …" I stop and stare at him, my body gripped with panic that I don't understand. I have to remind myself that it's only a dream.
Only a dream.
Finnick's eyes are wet and his voice breaks when he speaks. "No, Annie … I sent you the bread. But I wasn't there."
"Yeah, yeah, you were the bread. It was warm and it was your bread and it was …" I realise my eyes are stinging with tears, and my voice has raised to a shout. I swallow a sob and mutter, "It was …" I'm so confused. Images keep flashing up in my head, things I can't remember ever happening but seem so real at the same time. The red, dying sun in the jungle. The rocks and the crashing sea. The cave. They're empty, always empty. I'm all alone. My voice is barely audible when I manage to say, "It was kinda soggy, actually."
Lance's eyes, blank and staring.
Finnick's hand tightens around mine. "Why was it soggy, Annie?"
I breath in through my mouth as my body quakes. "Because … Because I was crying," I realise aloud.
The sounds in my ears are deafening. Some wild bug going bleep! bleep! bleep! faster and faster in the night. Scurrying footsteps all around. I'm panting. And always more sobbing. It never ends.
I screw my eyes up tight as my eardrums tremble like thunder, threatening to burst. And just above all the noises, I hear him ask one more question.
And why were you crying?
Then there's the screaming. Screaming, screaming, screaming. I clamp my hands over my ears in a last desperate attempt to silence the sounds as I flail around, trying to fight off the many-legged caterpillar that's attempting to pin me down.
Quite suddenly, my limbs relax and I am returned to the fog, feeling his hand slip quietly from mine as I'm knocked unconscious once again.
When I wake up, Finnick is nowhere to be found. There is, however, a woman sitting in the chair by my bedside. I don't recognise her so I spend a good deal of time ignoring her, facing the other direction and watching the filter of the wheezing tank rise up and down like an accordion.
"It's good to see you awake, Annie," I hear the woman say.
I roll over and stare at her. She looks back, smiling good-naturedly at me. I just stare, blinking slowly every once in a while.
"I'm Doctor Jeckyll, and this is Nurse Hyde." I look up to see a man standing at the end of my bed, holding a clipboard and smiling the same, sickly sort of smile.
Jeckyll and Hyde. How very nice to meet you. How do you do?
"Are you feeling well today, Annie?" the nurse asks.
Very well, thank you for asking.
"Hm … Don't feel like speaking, huh?" says Jeckyll.
Very observational, aren't you Doctor?
"That's all right, Annie. We'll have much time to talk later. For now, Nurse Hyde just needs to run a few tests …"
Why won't this dream just end already? It's not nearly as interesting as death. The doctor leaves the room and the nurse comes over to the side of the bed and does some random, unnecessary, useless tests like shining a light into my eyes and prodding me painfully in places.
Before the nurse leaves, I ask him where Finnick is.
"Finnick Odair?" he repeats. "Well, I expect he's busy. He's a busy man."
More nonsense. I just lie there, thinking. I have a lot to think about so I spend a lot more time doing just that. They leave the lights on all the time here, so I don't know how many days pass, and I have no way of knowing how long I've been here before now. There's no sunshine. There's no moonlight. It's all artificial. Even the air is artificial, and I can't breath it myself.
After a while, I ask Nurse Hyde a few questions and find out a lot of things. He is often glad to sit down and fill me in on what's going on around me. The wheezing machine delivers four litres of air into my lungs with every erroneous breath, because of the damage my lungs took when I almost drowned. Obviously, most of what he tells me is lies. I'm still dreaming, so technically it's my subconscious that's lying to me, so I forgive him. Sometimes he tells me things that I can somewhat recall.
I am reminded of something called the Hunger Games. That's when things get confusing.
Eventually, Finnick returns, and it's him who tells me about Lance and the others. I'm still confused, but I try not to get too upset. It's just a dream, after all. A very elaborate dream, but nothing more than that.
At some point, it dawns on me that these dreams of death seem eerily similar to plain old life.
I may be a Great Thinker, but it doesn't take a hundred years. As time passes in this dreamland, I gather enough information and spend enough time thinking to figure out some things that I believe must be inexplicably, unbelievably, and undeniably certain.
My name is Annie Cresta, and I survived the 70th Hunger Games.
But the more time I spend in this hell, the more I wish I hadn't.